The Koothandavar Spectacle, Koovagam
Of the many bizarre and strange customs and festivals observed in India, the Koothandavar festival of Koovagam surely makes it to the top 10 in my judgement. The very basis of the festival, its associated rituals and the people involved make it the weirdest possible celebration on earth. A celebration of love and death, of sacrifice and life.
The small hamlet of Koovagam is present in the Vizhuppuram district of Tamil Nadu, making it virtually a ‘nothing’. However, once a year this tiny village turns into the biggest camp for transgenders from all over the country. They gather in flocks to take part in the rituals of the festival which lasts for 18 days, culminating on chitra pournami (april-may). A festival which has its base rooted into the depths of the Mahabharatha war, Krishna’s cunningness and the noble nature of a very valiant young man.
War between the Pandavas and Kauravas was imminent. There was no way that a war could be averted, thus saving millions of innocent human lives. Krishna, as the protector of the universe was worried about the outcome of the war. It was true that he could intervene with his divine powers and avert catastrophe, but humans are required to decide their own fates. That’s what the vedas and shastras say. But still, he wanted the Pandavas to win the war, for he was on their side and their doings were just and moral. This would be the ultimate “Good wins over Bad” story if it went along as he desired.
Having no choice, he goes to Sahadeva who is blessed with the talent of accurately forecasting the future and reading horoscopes, and to his greatest dismay finds Dhuryodhana there too. “Welcome, my lord”, exclaimed Sahadeva,” and you too, cousin. How may I help you both?” Dhuryodhana lays forward his request, “Oh MadriPutra, being true to your skill, guide me along a path, wherein I can surely claim victory in the upcoming war.” Nodding thoughtfully, Sahadeva looked at Shri Krishna, “and you my lord?”. “Sahadeva, I came to ask the same favor on behalf of the Pandavas.” Krishna blurted out. Without saying a word, Sahadeva rolled his Shozhi (shells used to help in prediction) and after several calculations looked up to both his guests. “The path to success is alike for both of you”, he explained. “To attain victory in the upcoming war, you need to sacrifice a man filled with all the good qualities of Valor, strength, bravery, beauty and such, to the goddess of war, Kali. He who first performs this sacrifice will gain the blessings of Kali and win the war”, he concluded and with very worried eyes looked at Krishna. “Leave that to me Sahadeva. Why fear when I am here?”, and with a dangerous look at Duryodhana, he left Sahadeva.
All along his way back his mind was filled with a single thought, “Can it be? Hope it is not so. I cannot bear to lose him. Oh, wish that we do get another suitable person for the sacrifice.” The reason for his worried thoughts-Arjuna. Matching the qualities required in the sacrificial person to the various people in the Pandava camps, he could come up with only two people, Himself and Arjuna, and he wanted to lose neither. With a heavy heart he summons the Pandavas and relays Sahadeva’s prediction. “Is there anyone… Anyone else, other than Arjuna who can match the requirements of sacrifice? Anyone at all?” He pleaded, only to be met by a stunning silence. Krishna’s heart shattered at the thought of losing a dear friend. He felt light headed and started to sway with dizziness, when a voice cut through his haziness.
“Am I eligible to be sacrificed?” the voice asked. Looking for the source of the voice, Krishna’s eyes land on a very handsome man, dressed as a warrior and bearing resemblances to Arjuna. “Who are you, may I know?” questioned Krishna, as hope revived in his heart.
“I am Aravaan, the son of Arjuna, born to the Naaga princess Chithrangadha, through an illicit wedlock. I have come here to help bring victory to my father and his brothers. And if I can indeed help them win by sacrificing myself, then I am ready to die.” he proclaimed.
Krishna is flooded with relief. Using his divine powers, he comes to know that Aravaan is indeed a warrior par excellence, full of good qualities and excellent character. “He would make the perfect sacrifice to Kali”, Krishna thought and he beckoned Aravaan to come with him. He introduced Aravaan to the Pandavas including to Arjuna, his father (what weirdness!!!) and praised the sacrificial qualities of Aravaan. “So you will be sacrificed to the Goddess at the dawn of war, tomorrow. Purify yourself mentally and physically and prepare for the day. Long live your sacrifice”, Krishna told Aravaan and turned to leave.
“One moment my lord, I have but a few wishes to be granted before I die. Will you grant them?” Aravaan asked Krishna. “Why don’t you try me?” Krishna winked mischievously at Aravaan.” My lord”, began Aravaan,” I have had the good fortune to enjoy much in life, but before I die, I would like to enjoy the heat of a woman. I wish to die a married man, my lord.” Krishna is stunned. Which woman would marry a man who is going to the sacrificial altar the very next day? Probably none. No woman is crazy to throw her life away.”We will manage that”, he assured Aravaan, “Anything else?”.”Yes my lord, I would like to witness the entire war unfold, in my physical body and I would also like to fight on the Pandava side for a minimum of three weeks. Is that agreeable?”
It was here that the jealousy of Krishna kicked in. He knew that Aravaan was an excellent warrior and if he was allowed to fight there would be no need of any of the Pandavas or Krishna himself. “ParthaPuthra, what is ‘three weeks’ to a man like you? You can probably crush the entire enemy forces in three and a two third minutes. You will be able to fight on the Pandava side for those three and a two third minutes.” Aravaan agreed, charmed by Krishna’s flattery and speech. “If that is all, you can follow me to meet your bride, who will be your wife tonight and your widow in some days.” Krishna commanded.
Aravaan followed Krishna to the interiors of the palace. There, in the presence of the Pandavas and a few close friends, Krishna did the unbelievable. He transformed himself into Mohini, a form so beautiful that even Shiva had fallen for it, and in the presence of the elders, married Aravaan. That night Aravaan got his first wish fulfilled. Mohini seduced him with all her sexuality. All through the night, Aravaan was confused if he was with a man or woman. The smell of butter and milk reminded him of Krishna, but at the same time he couldn’t come out of Mohini’s clutches. The night passed and the day of the war dawned.
Aravaan was taken to the battle field and was made to stand at the center. There he tore off his skin from his arms and offered them to Kali. Kali, ever thirsty for blood, pounced on it and gave her blessings to Pandavas. The war began. Over the course of the 18 days, Aravaan kept Kali satisfied, stripping pieces from his body and offering it to her. On the final day when his allotted 3 and a two-third minutes of time came up, he realised that he had been tricked. He just had his head and his skeleton intact. A fat lot of use they would come to.
Conetemplating, he assumed his Vishwaroopa form and with his head as a large stone, he rolled over the enemy forces killing millions and badly hurting himself. The war was over. The Pandavas had won and the cause for it all, Aravaan, was lying, all alone on the Kurukshetra field. During his final moments on earth, when his life was ebbing away, he heard the high pitched wail of a woman. Turning towards the source of the wail, he sees Krishna, as Mohini, beating her breasts and wailing, the very picture of a widowed woman grieving her husband. With that final sight, his spirit soared heaven-wards and joined the other immortal heroes in warrior heavens, forever shining upon the brave warriors of yore. Aravaan had passed on, a happy man.
This chapter in the Mahabharatha forms the central theme of the 18 day festival at Koovagam. The small shrine at Koovagam is dedicated to none other than Aravaan himself and he is worshipped as Koothandavar. The 18 day festival celebrates the final days of Aravaan’s life, right up to his brave sacrifice on the 18th day. The highlight of the festival happens to be the marriage of Aravaan. The transgenders who gather here are the self-proclaimed brides of Aravaan. They claim themselves to be incarnations of Krishna, who was a man trapped inside a woman’s body, when he seduced Aravaan, just like the transgenders themselves. The first 15 days of the festival pass in dancing, singing and merrymaking, the transgenders putting up colourful and lively performances. All through the 18 days, a gigantic head of Aravaan is made and painted with the greatest care within the temple precincts
On the 17th day, the priest does special poojas to the idol of Aravaan and bringing upon the power of Aravaan on himself, he ties the mangalsutra (the sacred marital thread) around the neck of all the transgenders present there. They are now the wives of Aravaan, just for the night. A gala feast is organised which is followed by a night full of merrymaking, laughter and dance. The gigantic head of Aravaan is mounted on a chariot and taken around the village.
At the dawn of the 18th day, the air is ripped by sharp wails, as Aravaan is beheaded, widowing all his one-day-old wives. Following the traditions, the widows of Aravaan rip the Mangalsutraa from their necks, tear flowers out of their hair, throw away ornaments, and remove all cosmetics from their faces, wailing loudly, beating their chests, just like Krishna mourned for Aravaan long, long ago. They drag themselves behind the separated head of Aravaan which is later cremated, bringing the festival to an official end.
The eighteen day festival sees all the transgenders campaigning for their rights and promoting equality movements. Since they dedicate themselves to Aravaan, they are called aravaanis in Tamil. Though the government is now recognising them and paying heed to their difficulties, a long time has to pass before they receive the same treatment as normal humans. And till that day arrives, they have to rely on the grace of Aravaan to take them through the rough times to come.